Answer the phone or the door, then wish you hadn’t. The news, even if you expected it, will stun you. You will feel as if you’ve left your own body behind too, and are hovering slightly above yourself, watching the scene unfold like some terrible TV movie.
Gag. Vomit. Shout No to the person who tells you.
Refuse to believe it.
Tell them this happens to other people, to other families.
Not you. Not yours.
Stumble, somehow through the raw first days. Shower. Press small pieces of bread to your lips. Sip water. Realize the desperate animal sounds you hear are coming from your own body. Wonder how it is that your lungs keep filling with air, over and over again.
Sit through his memorial service. Thank the cottony cloud of shock that makes this all feel unreal. Cling to it. It will be worse when it, too, leaves you.
Hear people implore you to be strong for your parents. Try not to scream at them. Know the truth that these people don’t know: That yes, it must be an unbearable hell to outlive a child. But that the immensity of your parents’ loss does not dwarf your own—it fucking magnifies it. Because in losing your brother or sister—the person you were supposed to live a lifetime with—you’ve lost your parents as you knew them, too.
You feel like your arm has been hacked off of you, and a leg too, and hell, all of your limbs, and now you are a battered, bleeding torso. Resist the urge to explain that to these people urging you to be strong—that you have just had your limbs chopped off and that has earned you the right to not have to be strong right now. Not even for your parents. Instead of flinging words at the people who dribble these stinging, well-intentioned platitudes, simply stare. Shine them the entire, holy weight of your pain.
Hear the words pound through your head over and over again: my brother is dead. My sister is dead. These words are nudging you across the bridge from your old life, where your sibling was alive, to your new life, where they’re not. It is not a bridge you wanted to cross—you hate this bastard bridge. But you can’t turn back.
This is the bridge you are on.
Sort through your sister’s belongings. Think she wouldn’t want me to read her journal. Wonder how it’s possible that this pile of CDs and t-shirts is all that’s left. Listen to your brother’s favorite song, again and again, until your body is empty of liquid to make tears with.
Fall completely and utterly apart. Imagine the entire rest of your life, all the love and loss, the weddings and births, the sick days and vacations, and how damned bittersweet every single event of your life will be because your brother won’t be there. Dream of the faces of the nieces and nephews you’ll never have, the ghost of holiday gatherings that won’t be. Ask why him? over and over again, and wait for the answer that doesn’t come.
Go for long, tentative walks. Refuse to step on wriggling worms or the small black bodies of ants. Because maybe there is someone back home waiting for them, some worm sister or ant brother, and you can’t bear the thought of sending more grief in the world, even invertebrate grief.
Be afraid to go to sleep. Not because of the nightmares. But because you might dream them alive again, and for just a sliver of a second when you awake in the sweet smudge between sleep and consciousness, you will think their death was a mistake. And the news will come thundering down. Again.
Notice, despite yourself, small scraps of beauty: a star-patched sky. The singing face of a stranger at a stoplight. Moving water. Let the thought wash over you, for just a moment: you will be okay.
Scream at your sister. For leaving you behind. For ruining your parents. For causing this terrible pit of pain.
Apologize for your rage. Forgive her.
Forgive yourself. For being alive. For the times you called your brother an asshole. For not saving him. Forgive yourself, over and over and over again.
Find someone else who has lost a sister or a brother. Discover there is a silent army stretching all across the earth made of people who are walking across the same bridge as you. An entire troop of torso people. Imagine them, in India, in Wisconsin, in Argentina.
Approach the anniversary of her death. Be wary. It looms like a portal, making you think, for a sick second, that you can bend back time, that you can stop it from happening. Meet the day anyway. Let loose a bouquet of balloons. Write your brother a letter. Go to the ocean. Order his favorite pizza. Go to sleep and awake the next day, surprised that it still hurts this much, surprised you have survived a whole year without him.
Wish more time away. Let it pour over you and do what nothing else can—soften the throb of your phantom limbs. Let it push you across that shitty bridge. Let it show you what is still here—your sharp mind, your sinewy heart, a future that is not the one you wanted, but the one that is, nonetheless, waiting for you.
Hesitate when someone you’re just meeting asks you, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Hold your breath as you weigh your answer. Know that anything but the awkward truth will feel wrong.
Notice that you haven’t cried in a day, a week, two weeks. Feel grateful for the terrible strength of the human spirit, for the press on and on and on.
Live your sweet, hard, singular life. Have a son whose eyes will be a carbon copy of your brothers’. Build something strong and beautiful. Whisper, I miss you into the flesh of your pillow.
Stand back and stare at the bridge you’ve somehow crossed. You were there, and there, and there. You have walked to a land you’d never imagined. You are used to it now, except on anniversaries and also Tuesdays. But you will always wish you hadn’t had to walk across that damned bridge.
image by Ben White via Unsplash